Tuna Noodle Casserole - © spendwithpennies.com

Reimagining the Classics: Mac and Cheese!

Bet you thought you’d already pulled every trick there was to change up good old Mac and Cheese since you started cooking more at home last winter, when the COVID-19 crisis clamped down. Well… Mac and Cheese isn’t just a single style or combination of ingredients…

Tuna Noodle Casserole - lg - spendwithpennies.com

No, dear friends: Mac and Cheese is a classic concept; dare I say a state of mind? And today’s weekly installment of Sunday musings gives you plenty to muse on when taking your Mac and Cheese creations to new lengths and heights!

Challenge your concept of ‘Mac’

Even today, there are old school Italian cooks who refer to any short, chunky-shaped pasta as ‘macchiaroni’ (or some other archaic version of that spelling). For them, Pasta (with a capital ‘P’) is traditionally a separate course at every formal meal. For the rest of us,  it’s usually a meal of its own, or a side lumped in with the starches and grains. So we’ll need to start our personal Mac and Cheese Renaissances with a brain-opening exercise or two. If the only Pasta you associate with Mac and Cheese is Elbow Macaroni, give your head a shake and consider the following: Spaghetti Pie; any version of a Baked Zitti casserole; any dish that is composed primarily of Pasta and Cheese, like Fettuccine Alfredo… Getting the idea?

Then, start improvising on what you could add to amplify or enhance the basic duo.

Challenge your concept of ‘Cheese’

By that, I mean whatever kind of Saucy component you blend with the Mac. Here’s a little exercise to help you limber up your mind to ‘filling’:

Take your fave family recipe for Tuna and Noodles. Your recipe probably calls for Béchamel (White Cream) Sauce, half a teaspoon or so of powdered mustard, Salt and Pepper to taste, and some other simple ingredients such as diced onions or chopped scallions and a handful of frozen or leftover gren peas; blended gently with Crumbled Canned Tuna and some sort of small Pasta such as Macaroni, Oricceti, Rotini or Penne. Top and bake at 350 F until bubbly and the topping is golden brown. Right?

Now ask yourself how it would taste with a sprinkle of ginger and/or cinnamon, or all-0ut allspice or pumpkin pie spice? How about going spicy with a shot of Spanish Paprika or Yellow Curry Powder?

Photo above left: Your Basic Tuna and Noodles? Or ‘Fancy’ Mac and Cheese? You decide…

Challenge your concept of ‘protein’

One of the easiest ways to go with your Tuna Casserole tune-up would be to use firm Tofu in place of Tuna. Marinated or not in some kind of savoury flavour. But keep in mind that Seafood, Chicken or leftover. Think about doing something really off the wall using Beef, Pork or whatever you have leftover from Sunday roasts. Just remember that, for best results, use a stronger-flavoured cheese like old White or Coloured Cheddar or Jack with stronger-flavoured meats.

Toppings can make the dish

Sure, many of your creations will end up in a casserole under a broiler. But, if you’re a Mac and Cheese classicist, you’ll consider that finishing touch a mandatory final step in assembling and finishing your dish. And that will make for a great ‘reveal’ moment every time you plunge a serving spoon into a fresh, piping hot new casserole.

Consider upgrading to a top crust of crushed Potato Chips, Corn Chips, Wheaties or Chex Cereal. And always remember that a fair amount of melted butter and grated cheese (like Parmesan or Romano) is needed for your chosen crunchy crust material to come together into a crispy finish in the oven. Don’t add the butter if you’re planning on serving something a little looser (à la ‘Anypasta Alfredo’ for example) in a bowl. In that case, just sprinkle the topping on and serve.

Crispy Fried Onions deserve special and individual consideration. You basically have two choices: Keep them whole and spread them on top of your creation for visual appeal, or run them through the Blender or food processor to reduce them to the same consistency as your chosen crust base (as the case may be) to add crunch and flavour to the topping overall.

Got your creative juices flowing?

Consider any culture’s cuisine fair game for the Mac and Cheese makeover treatment. Do your homework on flavours and presentation traditions that may be new to you. You could surprise your family with a new Mac and Cheese creation every week for the next 6 months, at least! You’ll have fun, and combining your Mac and Cheese experience with traditional multicultural recipes off the Internet, you can minimize your chance of a crash and burn!

~ Maggie J.